COV&R-Bulletin No. 4 (March 1993)
Abstracts of the COV&R- Conference in San Francisco November 20, 1992
Charles Mabee (UMHE Oakland University/Ecumenical Theological Center, Detroit), René Girard and Rudolf Bult mann: The Problem of Myth
This paper is a comparison of the thought of Girard and Bultmann inspired by the latter's program of demythologization. Girard does not employ such a method because he does not perceive the same thorough-going mythological structure of the NT as does Bultmann. Girard understands the language of the NT to be grounded in the Passion of Jesus, and only incidentally mythological. Furthermore, Girard's approach is not as thoroughly hermeneutical in orientation as is Bultmann's in the sense that the latter really allows the worldview of the modern reader to "set the conceptual table" for NT interpretation. Girard understands the NT as un masking and demystifying the oppressive groundwork of modern thought through its fundamental solidarity with the victim.
The paper concludes with reference to additional points of comparison between Bultmann and Girard: Issues raised include Girard's apparent disregard for the historical-critical methodologies which informed Bultmann, divergent understandings of the meaning of the NT as the Word of God, and the differing roles of the concept of history in the thought of each. The final point is made that Bultmann remains in many ways still a central challenge if the world of NT scholarship is to be embraced in a meaningful way from the Girardian perspective.
Charles Mabee takes up the important task of establishing Girardian interpretation as one of the recognized options in New Testament studies and makes a fine contribution by comparing it with the interpretive theory of the most influential 20th century Protestant interpreter of the New Testament, Rudolf Bultmann. Mabee correctly focuses attention on the difference in the understanding of philosophy and mythology which is a difference in the appreciation of the role of the GMSM (generative mimetic scapegoating mecha nism). Bultmann is simply unaware of the GMSM and so perpetuates a mythic interpretation in terms of the mythology of the modern world in its scientistic and solipsistic (existentialist) philosophic mode.
Bultmann mixes a scientistic critique of the New Testament with an existentialist epistemology in which there are no "timeless truths" but only the "encounters in history." History is predomi nantly verbal; one encounters God in the preaching of the Church. To this Girard opposes the text of the Bible, which is robustly referential, as the place where God is encountered in the disclosive power that unmasks the GMSM. It is ironic that the Catholic should emphasize the Biblical text while the Protestant magnifies the Church!
Mabee gives a fine account of the two positions but he does not touch the real problems, which are the, for want of a better term, epistemological ones. What is the relation between scientism and existentialism in Bultmann? Do they not cancel each other in the sense that if there are no "timeless truths" why should the positivist world view be taken as authoritative and, contrariwise, if the positivist world view is true then we have "timeless truths" and the existentialist position is untenable? What is the implication of the mimetic nature of the subject for the subject-object relations hip? Mabee has given us a useful exposition; now the critical analysis should begin. It will show that Girard accounts more cogently for more things than Bultmann does.
In his response to Charles Mabee's excellent paper on Bultmann and himself, Girard pointed out that for him, far from being primarily the object of demythologization, the Gospels are the source of it. His definition of myth, and Bultmann's, is really a surrender to modern immanentism.
In this important book, James Williams accepts Professor Girard's general hypothesis about scapegoating and argues that his work provides the basis for a new Christian humanism. In examining biblical texts, from Genesis through the Gospels, Professor Williams' Girardian thesis follows two interweaving paths. The first path leads to the realization that the essence of Judaism and Christianity is the common defense of all victims. The second path leads to the recognition that, in the Bible, there is a steady evolving of "liberation from the myth of sanctioned violence," culminating in the God Man of the Gospels who, in becoming a victim, offers a visionary and radical maneuver that steps outside the destructive, spiraling web of violence to posit an imaginative world of new creation whose reality is secured apart from the horrors of victimage and scapegoating.
The major questions with this approach follow: how realistic is it for liberation movements that are seeking to escape from the oppression of dominant groups to be content with passive non-resistance to violence and victimage? What does it mean for God to be a God of victims? If God is to defend victims, how is this done? Even more basic, what of justice and the moral imperative for humans to defend victims from their oppressors? How do humans defend victims, apart from acts of violence?
In spite of these questions, this is a splendid application of Girardian theory to the Bible. This is a book to which one will return many times, for each reading will yield new insights into the most troubling problem of human existence.
Girard also commented on the mimetic interpretation of rhetorical figures in James Williams's THE BIBLE, VIOLENCE, AND THE SACRED. He sees the book as a most important contribution to mimetic theory and Biblical studies.
I would like to thank Leo Perdue for a carefully composed evaluation of my book. He laid out the argument and some of the issues with keen insight.
There are three levels of mimesis, which I presuppose and state but do not systematically develop in the book: (1) Level 1--the good mimesis of God or the rule of God. (2) Level 2--the effective mimesis that enables culture to work on the basis of a sacrificial mechanism. (3) Level 3--the bad mimesis in which the acquisitive aspect of imitating others breaks out of the bounds of differentiation, the modes of mediation that culture establishes. The Nietzschean tradition has sought to uncover level 3 (though not recognizing it as mimesis) and tends to oscillate between levels 2 and 3, while considering level 1 no longer actual (the "death of God"). We exist and relate to others primarily at level 2. One valid response to being deprived of the benefits of level 2 is to fight against perceived injustice or to serve as advocate for victims. However, there are those who are called to a witness without which we would not survive and remain open to the transcendence of the God of love: these are the ones who are strong and able to fight but who do not reciprocate by imitating the violence of the other.